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Speaking and Participating

Multilingualism in schools

This model helps teachers support a multilingual environment where students can build their multilingual identity in a diverse classroom. The innovation provides teachers tools to build their own theory-in-use and exercises to support multilingualism in the classroom.

Finland 100


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Finland 100

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March 2017
Education is not just doing, it's also thinking. Education and teaching is about seeing things from a new perspective and finding an understanding.

About the innovation

What is it all about?

Teachers work regularly with culturally and linguistically diverse classrooms. The students may not have a uniform culture background and a shared prior knowledge so the teacher cannot base the instruction on these aspects.

This setting poses challenges both for teaching and learning. As an illustration, many textbooks are based on the idea that the children have a shared experiential world in which new concepts are then “planted.” Many things that seem self-evident, such as seasons (is summer followed by spring or fall?), can be left meaningless for some because they have no personal experience of them.

Therefore, the concepts taught can feel superficial and abstract to the students. Language education can even become mechanical and unconnected in the worst scenarios. This is why we must create completely new premises for teaching.

In multilingual classrooms the learners' mother tongues are present even when the teacher cannot recognize their expressions. This can produce anxiety in the teacher and students. We must create a dialogue and start developing ways to bring good practices from multilingual pedagogy to multilingual classrooms.

This model aims to assist teachers to support multilingualism in the classroom. Another goal is to help teachers support their students building a multilingual identity. The following five steps provide teachers tools to build their own theory-in-use (the terms) and exercises to support multilingualism in the classroom.

Impact & scalability

Impact & Scalability


Speaking and Participating is a pedagogically well-researched model that helps teachers face an educational challenge that is becoming more common.


Students feel included when they are seen as individuals with distinct backgrounds.


Schools all around the world have a growing need for this innovation.


Implementation steps

Term: Translanguaging
Translanguaging refers to pedagogy conscientiously using bilingual or multilingual discourse practices to build the learners' multilingual reality.

Bilingual children learn all concepts in two languages and teaching should reflect this and allow different languages to be used.

As an illustration, many textbooks are based on the idea that the children have a shared experiential world in which new concepts are then “planted.” Many things that seem self-evident, such as seasons (is summer followed by spring or fall?), can be left meaningless for some because they have no personal experience of them. Therefore, the concepts taught can feel superficial and abstract to the students. Language education can even become mechanical and unconnected in the worst scenarios. This is why we must create completely new premises for teaching.

Teaching must be built on the premise that children's prior knowledge does not put them in a disadvantage. Pre-understanding should be built utilizing children's mother tongue and experiences. This requires the support of the homes and the community. Diversity is a strength in the classroom as well as an important value to instill in the children. The goal is to help children build a multilingual identity centering on their mother tongue.

More on translingualism:

  • García, O. (2009). Bilingual Education in the 21st Century. United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell.

  • Slotte, A.–Ahlholm, M. (2017). Negotiating concepts and the role of translanguaging. In Paulsrud, B., Rosén, J., Straszer, B. & Wedin, Å. (eds.) New Perspectives on Translanguaging and Education. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, Vol. 2017.
Term: Hidden Curriculum
Hidden curriculum means all those norms and attitudes of the school and teachers that guide the learning even if they are not written in the official curriculum.

These values are therefore reflected in the pedagogy. For example, if a teacher assumes that they don't have to give space to the child's cultural identity, the teacher will not do so and the child's cultural identity is submissive to the teacher's concept of normalcy.

Schools are never neutral. As an illustration, we are bound to local curricula and measure learning using the grade-level objectives.

But is identical treatment the same as equality? For example, in assessment we measure homogenized learning. And because the criteria is the same for everyone, a student from an immigrant background is seen as less talented. As teachers, we design a prognosis or an assumption that statistically becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Children come from very different circumstances and we must accept them without transferring them into our perception of their potential learning or learning ability. A child is a multi-faceted entity and accepting and understanding it helps us see children from immigrant backgrounds as equals to the other students without placing a value on diverse backgrounds.

Teachers' hidden curricula may even undermine the idea of teaching being reciprocal and based on dialogue, like in the previous example. How can teaching be based on dialogue if a teacher's attitude dismisses the child's cultural and experiential world?

Based on this, teachers must constantly consider if they can see the students' abilities through their language skills. Can we support students' strengths or do we allow hidden curricula to become self fulfilling prophecies?

Term: The Learning Equation
Good teachers are able to convey the knowledge from the textbooks in clear, simple terms to the students.

For example, a biology teacher in a specific dialect area can teach their subject in that dialect. This makes the learning content more approachable and relevant to the students' daily lives. The teacher provides a link between the students who speak the dialect and the school's body of knowledge.

Multilingual learners also need a point of entry to textbooks in order to learn their content. Learning is a process where learners meld cognitive stimuli into their knowledge of the world. Learning requires the input of information but also the acceptance of the information into one's world view.

We can think of the learning process as an equation where you combine the identity input and the cognitive input. Identity input for learning can be, say, one's language or a familiar way of speaking. To this we can add information. The learning equation can be illustrated as a scale where the scale must be balanced in order for learning to take place.

If the teacher does not speak the languages that are relevant to the students' identities, the learning equation becomes exceedingly more noteworthy. Education history is full of examples of the learning equation succeeding and failing.

Activity Tip: Let's celebrate! – celebratory pedagogy in the classroom
School have traditionally been responsible for linking children to their cultural heritage.

Introducing them to their traditions and holiday culture is integral in this. Schools, however, face a dilemma nowadays: how to balance continuity and change? How much should we instill existing norms in children? Then again, how much should we teach them to question and change?

Integrating different holiday traditions into school life is justified in school's function to socialize children. Celebratory pedagogy helps to alleviate the conflict between socializing the children and encouraging change. It focuses on celebrating the holidays of the mainstream culture as well as the different religions and cultures represented in the school community. The world we bring into the school is the one we want to see and experience. School should be a true living community for children. Everyday activities should be subordinate to things that are significant to the children.

We don't often question schools' holiday culture, and their celebrations are a self-evident part of the calendar. We should, however, view holidays as learning opportunities. At best, holidays can introduce experiential learning into everyday school activities and support teaching.

Holidays combine the school's individual and communal goals. Students feel more included in the community when their holidays are celebrated together and it highlights their difference in a positive way. Children are experts of the holidays they present to the others. They are experienced in their culture and religion. Holidays are also communal events within the school and the class. The students learn by doing, interpreting and sharing.

Celebrations represent experiential learning, as well. The children gather knowledge and skills and broaden their linguistic world, for example. Celebrations promote dialogue that allows everyone (especially the teacher) to learn and study the world.

The school must plan, prepare and, at the end, assess celebrations that aim to improve the school culture. The preparation process may even surpass the actual celebration in importance for the children as they study why the celebration is held and why it is significant, prepare decorations, plan the food, music and program. The teacher should also inform the parents. The celebrations are an opportunity to open the classroom's doors and cooperate with homes and the local community.

Case Maatulli primary school

Maatulli primary school celebrated the Muslim holiday Eid Al-Adha in mid-September. Muslim students prepared a presentation for their class: why and how Eid Al-Adha is celebrated, what kind of traditions their families have and how do the celebrations in Finland differ from their home countries. The whole class brought treats to school and participated in their classmates' holiday.

The class studied the Sacrifice Feast and how it connects to the Bible. It shares the story of sacrificing the firstborn and the students looked at the significance of sacrificial rituals in different religions. We looked at pictures of Muslims around the world celebrating Eid Al-Adha and the next day we discussed the holiday again. This allowed the teacher to assess how well the students had retained the information. The next holiday in line is the Finnish author Aleksis Kivi Day and the celebration of Finnish Literature.

Activity Tip: An annual calendar brings celebrations into the classroom
You can bring celebration pedagogy into the classroom in a concrete way with a holiday calendar. The students should craft the calendar and hang it on the wall.

In the calendar, you should gather all the holidays that are celebrated during the school year from the cultures and religions represented in the class. Every student should think of holidays that are significant in their culture and/or religion. The children should make small symbols of the holidays, preferably using their mother tongue, and attach them to the calendar. The calendar evolves and gets fuller as the year goes on. This allows these special days and students' mother tongue to be visible in the classroom.

October, November, December, January

Students from immigrant backgrounds may feel different and excluded. They are dropped in the middle of a foreign culture where the language and customs are alien to them and their classmates don't know their history. All this may shatter the student's learner identity and sense of stability.

As teachers, we may not be aware of all this living diversity at the heart of our everyday lives right alongside our mainstream culture's traditions and calendar. School is a big part of every student's lives in the present and it should reflect the everyday experiences of multicultural children. We, as teachers, must allow space for this interaction.

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